For the enormity of it all
By ZHANG YUNYUN
Jennifer was reading one of her poems from her book, The Mouths of Grazing Things, to a few girls in her class, when I encountered them on the main campus of Soochow University on a sunny Saturday morning.
Together with her husband and daughter, Jennifer Boyden came to Suzhou in 2011. But it was her husband Ian who opened her eyes to this oriental water town. A decade ago, artist Ian Boyden came to Soochow University to study Chinese language and art. He later developed deep love for this city.
“We both decided it would be great to come because our daughter was eight, and I thought she could learn a language, and she could have a great experience living in another culture,” Jennifer says. And the whole family was ready for some fresh experience, and a new way of seeing the world. They arrived in China in the sweating August, each with a Chinese name. Jennifer loved her name Bai Yi, literally means “white ripple” in Chinese.
Jennifer thought she would see a lot of people, knowing that Suzhou was a city of six million people (in fact the population exceeded thirteen million by March 2012). “But at ten o’clock at night, all the lights are off, and it’s very quiet. In summer we can see the moon and stars at night. In big cities, you usually can’t see as many stars because of the light pollution.”
In fact, Jennifer is never picky about the environment for creative writing. In 1999, she was awarded the PEN Northwest Wilderness Writing Residency Award, which allowed her to live and write in western United States. She stayed alone in a cabin for ten months. “Sometimes it could be weeks before I saw a single person,” she says. Most of her poems in her first book were created during that period.
Dongwu Hotel, the temporary home for foreign professors, is a place downtown yet of quietude. “Around my building it’s all concrete, except for one giant tree.” “The camphor tree?” “Yes.” She spends a lot of time sitting and looking at the tree, and there are birds all over the tree. “I think I can take my nature where I can find it. Sometimes I look at the mosses and plants outside my building. I like looking for surprises.”
Jennifer loves getting exposed to nature, and also calls on readers to do so in many of her poems. In “One thing I’ve never told you,” for example, the speaker has always wanted to be included in the world of nature. But for her, nature is not only a physical thing.
When she has time for herself, Jennifer will visit some classical gardens, all of which are artificial. “But in other ways they are not,” she says, “They are constructed around the ideas of bringing the nature in, so that you can have an imaginary relationship with the imaginative landscape. Artificial as they are, what inspires us is the tranquility that you can find in nature. I just like the calmness there. I like to go to the aisle, and when you are there, you know there’s a giant city bustling around there.” Jennifer can find calmness even in the noisy downtown, in a way that “a true hermit secludes himself in the city center,” as a Chinese saying has it. “My greatest enjoyment is the tension between two things: the calmness and the hustle and bustle around it,” she says.
Currently Jennifer is working on a novel. It’s not about this place, but she was looking for a good way into the novel when one day the massage lady gripped her neck. “I thought, ‘this is a nice way into the novel.’ She made me lie still for fifteen minutes, so I could think how to write the first paragraph.”
According to Jennifer, no single thing in Suzhou is good for poetry – it’s the perspective shift of being in a new culture that informs the core of what inspires writing. Everything in Suzhou, from the beautiful trees in Shiquan Street being cut to the fantastic old architecture to the mynah bird that invited her to chat, finally adds up to something big. All of that changes how she sees things and, therefore, how she thinks.
“And for that reason, we feel so lucky for the enormity of this experience as well as the generosity of the many people who have extended themselves to us,” Jennifer tells Suzhou Daily.